D. Lopez, This week in the garden

As a child I dreaded fall, my biological calendar could detect the first significant change in day length in September of each year. I didn’t like the romantic fall of leaves, the yellowing of grasses and the withering of wildflowers. These yellowish colors were my warning signs that I would soon be falling for joy.

The school environment would make me wish for summer again. At home, the noisy cleaning shifted. My mother had already completed most of her canning projects and the garden was now finishing its peak fruit and vegetable productivity. There was less work in the garden, marking a shift in focus towards the start of school. We didn’t have backpacks back then, all of our schools provided textbooks, pencils and paper on arrival. The new school clothes were already in our closets and the picture day outfit, haircut and lunch box ticked the list. We kids were in soldier mode, ready for the new season.

Looking closely at the trees, the poplar gave me the first clues. The roosters became more sloppy at sunrise and the horses were more spirited with the changing winds. My father peered through the glass doors facing west. I would join him. It wasn’t until I hit my twenties that I learned he would also secretly mourn the end of summer. Maybe we were the only ones in the family to have this feeling.

Over the years I learned to deal with what turned out to be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). At the time, it was a new entry in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders associated with the “winter blues”. Despite the skepticism regarding this disorder, blood work showed that there were a myriad of symptoms present to verify my sun-deprived body. My immune system was compromised, I became listless, slept long hours and had changes in my appetite. It’s as if I went into hibernation like other wild animals.

Determined not to dread fall every year, I swore that I would not only learn to deal with it, but also to love it. With the help of doctors and other sources of support, I changed my home environment and my lifestyle. Success came unexpectedly.

Light therapy. At the time, it cost several thousand dollars to get full spectrum light to mimic what the sun could give me. It was a prescription only device. As fall and winter daylight hours were reduced, a lamp was needed to extend my exposure to specific light rays.

As daytime creatures, sunlight hits our pineal gland, even through our eyelids, to trigger wakefulness in the daytime. The lack of sunlight creates melatonin in our body to help us sleep. I produced too much melatonin. Fortunately, we built a special lamp at home that turned on during the dark hours of the morning to help me wake up. Today these SAD or Happy lamps are available at much lower costs from manufacturers such as Verilux and Circadian Optics. Therapy has come a long way.

Gardening all year round has been the best therapy. Reserving special coats and shoes for winter, spending time outdoors in winter was an important source of calming practice. Collecting driftwood for garden art on beaches was a treat and established itself as a creative outlet to change the meaning of lost energy. Physical activity has always been part of the equation. Some days I had to force myself out.

The older I get, the more the problem of excess melatonin naturally fades with age. My body now creates just enough. Autumn is the time of the last sunflowers, a new set of crops, calendula petals and the movement of birds and squirrels. Fall is the start of the season for parties, candlelight dinners, aromatic teas and baking. The multicolored leaves that have fallen on the hiking trails of my favorite walks are a brilliant mosaic of colors. I have made peace with this cycle of life.

In Santa Cruz County, California, the first day of August lasted 14 hours and 4 minutes. The last day of the month was 13 hours and 2 minutes, so the day length was 1 hour and 1 minute shorter at the end of August. At some deep level in our human body, we feel the arrival of a new season.

As we enter September, I wish to join the rest of the natural world and slow down. Summer vacation is over, school has started, and it seems like we’re constantly defying nature by adding more activities to our schedule. More traffic. More consumer. The contradiction is ignored because we have a family or a business to manage.

If we could make one change to help us bring balance and joy into the changing season, I would say this: relax. Find the time.